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This 2007 photo shows construction near Grassland, Alta. on a pipeline running from Edmonton to the oil sands near Fort McMurray.Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail

There are countless little brooks and rivulets garlanding the islands and inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest in remote northern British Columbia, many without even a name. But the salmon know them well, and return each September, paddling relentlessly against the current, leaping over rocks and little waterfalls, shedding their skin and dying from the outside in to give life to another generation.

Because salmon are the keystone to this ecosystem's food chain, many never make it back to their birthplaces to spawn. At this time of year, the banks of the streams are littered with salmon carcasses and splayed guts like the remains of some grisly bacchanal. Many are tidily decapitated and otherwise fully intact, because the local wolf packs feed only on the heads.

Later in the month, the black bears come, accompanied by a few of their elusive cousins, the kermodes, born with a recessive gene that leaves their coats a ghostly pale yellow. The locals call them spirit bears. Salmon give life to this lush band of forest stretching from Prince Rupert to the north shore of Vancouver Island, the largest pristine ecosystem of its kind left in North America. But the spirit bears are the icons: August's National Geographic cover featured one, with the headline "The Wildest Place in North America."

That wild place is set to become the front line of a battle over Canada's energy future.

At the beginning of 2010, the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency formed a Joint Review Panel to consider an application made by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. for permission to snake a pair of oil pipelines 1,172 kilometres from the oil sands north of Edmonton to the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Traversing the territories of more than 40 first nations, both pipelines would end at a new terminal in Kitimat, a small industrial town.

One pipeline would carry Alberta-mined bitumen to Kitimat for international shipping; the other would deliver condensate (needed to make bitumen viscous enough to flow through pipelines) back to Alberta. Transporting the product out of Kitimat would generate oil-tanker traffic of unprecedented frequency and scale.

Enbridge calls the project Northern Gateway, promising jobs, prosperity and expanded markets. Opponents, including nearly all of the first nations along its intended route, see it as an oil-spill catastrophe waiting to happen. Yet while pipelines are fast emerging as a flashpoint in the climate-change debate, so far the argument has been muted in Canada – a symptom of our conflicted feelings about the role our energy resources should play in our national destiny.

Oil pipelines are making headlines as never before. An all-star roster of climate-change activists staged a sit-in at the White House in the last two weeks of August over a pending State Department decision on the Keystone XL – a proposed expansion of an existing pipeline bringing oil from central Alberta to Texas refineries. More than 1,000 people were arrested, including climate scientist James Hansen, actress Daryl Hannah and authors Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein.

Nine Nobel Peace Prize winners signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to say no to the Keystone project, arguing that the pipeline would "endanger the entire planet." If unconventional fossil fuels such as Alberta's bitumen were allowed to proliferate, Mr. Hansen said, it would be "essentially game over" in the fight to stabilize climate.

Meanwhile, politicians and industry leaders have been speaking another language entirely. Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged the U.S. to increase its oil imports "from the most secure, most stable and friendliest location it can possibly get that energy," while Canada's ambassador in Washington talked up job creation. A spokesman for TransCanada Pipelines touted the "conflict-free" pedigree of Alberta's hydrocarbons.

The main dispute is about the dirtiness of Alberta's oil. Is it simply 700,000 barrels a day of petroleum like any other, delivered by a trusted friend? Or a singularly deadly "carbon bomb" (as Mr. McKibben has put it)?

Mr. Hansen argued that a fully exploited oil-sands operation could add 200 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere. Andrew Leach, a business professor at the University of Alberta, crunched the numbers and determined that even at five million barrels a day – among the rosiest scenarios for Alberta production by 2030 and more than triple its current output – it would take until the year 3316 to reach Mr. Hansen's prediction. As Mr. Leach pointed out, advocates and opponents are using different kinds of calculations to yield the figures that serve them best.

This split on numbers reflects a much deeper division: To proponents, new pipelines are a matter of job creation and energy demand. To climate activists, the focus is on emissions and the long-term health of the planet. As Mr. McKibben wrote recently, "We're fighting back against the rise of this new energy paradigm, and this is the clearest place to make the fight."

"People are debating in two different tones," Mr. Leach said. "And I think that's still where we're at in Canada. We haven't been able to find a position that we're comfortable with, to say, 'Here's why it makes sense for us to have an oil-and-gas industry,' in a world that's concerned about climate change."

Keystone XL was mostly a U.S. conversation, but the Northern Gateway is a profoundly Canadian affair. When I visited the Great Bear Rainforest last year, I stayed in the remote village of Hartley Bay, a Gitga'at First Nation settlement of 160 accessible only by boat and float plane. If the pipeline is built, the Gitga'at will watch an oil tanker larger than anything that has ever navigated their fishing grounds churn past almost every day. They saw the B.C. ferry Queen of the North – less than half the size of a supertanker – sink in those waters just a few years ago, so they are not soothed by Enbridge's promises of "world-class" marine safety.

Alberta's bitumen currently flows at the rate of 300,000 barrels a day down the Trans Mountain pipeline, operated by Texas-based Kinder Morgan, to the port of Vancouver. Northern Gateway would add 525,000 barrels and greatly expand the industry's access to the new market most coveted by Alberta's oil-sands industry, one not likely to greet it with a star-studded protest: The pipeline is, first and foremost, a gateway to China.

Since the plan was announced in 2005, Enbridge executives have talked vaguely about "the Pacific Rim" and name-dropped California, but recent talk has dropped much of that pretense. Two oil companies partly owned by the Chinese government – China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. Ltd. (Sinopec) and CNOOC Ltd. – have already invested.

Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert has suggested that such access to Chinese customers is critical to the growth of the whole industry. "If we don't soon figure out how to get the product to Asia, the investment is going to dry up," he told a Bloomberg reporter recently. "The Chinese want to see things happen. If we want to continue to be open to Asian investment, there comes a quid pro quo in their mind and that's coming up fast."

Northern Gateway's fate will be decided officially by a three-member Joint Review Panel, which will begin hearings in early 2012. Its trial in the court of public opinion, however, has already begun.

Opposition among the first nations along its route is strident; Enbridge offered them a 10-per-cent stake in the pipeline, and was flatly rejected. In March, 2010, the Coastal First Nations – an alliance of nine nations along the coast – issued a blunt declaration that "oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters."

Should it pass, the Gateway surely would make a lot of money for companies headquartered in Houston and Beijing as well as in Calgary, and it would fulfill a certain vision of Canada as an "energy superpower." It also may tether the Canadian energy economy to China's for a generation.

And symbolically, the pipeline would be a fitting monument to Canada's resource history – a horizontal exclamation point at the end of five centuries of exploitation, from beaver pelts to mining, forestry and cod. Indeed. Enbridge has touted it as a piece of national infrastructure, akin to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

There's a tendency in some circles to treat the oil sands as a prairie aberration, but part of the reason the industry has thrived is that it's so consistent with the country's traditional economy. The oil sands are as Canadian as a Hudson's Bay blanket.

There's a more recent Canadian tradition, though – the one that celebrates moderation, fair play, stewardship and compromise. It gave rise to the national parks, land-claims tribunals, Nunavut, Greenpeace and the Montreal Protocol. It argues that Canada can do more with its natural abundance than extract, export and exhaust it at maximum speed. When Enbridge touts its pipeline-safety measures and marine stewardship – the double-hulled boats, the master mariners tugging the tankers carefully past Great Bear's salmon streams – it is sincerely attempting to participate in that vision.

Yet sincerity is not the same as authenticity. Avoiding an oil spill is not a substitute for reducing greenhouse gases. The conversation has skipped ahead a generation while Canada slept. Catching up could begin with the simple agreement that the wild land of the spirit bear is no place for pipelines – but also that there will probably be a place for pipelines, at least for the near term. But that would be just the start of an honest discussion of Canada's uncharted energy future.

Chris Turner is a Calgary-based author. His book The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy is being published this month by Random House.